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Killing Time: For Conscripts, German Military Service is Battle against Boredom

By Michael Fröhlingsdorf, and

Every year, tens of thousands of young German men are called up to do compulsory military service. But they are just a burden to the Bundeswehr, which has no need for half-trained conscripts. The recruits spend much of their service finding ways to defeat their biggest enemy: boredom.

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David (not his real name) had been looking forward to serving in the German military, the Bundeswehr. He had even thought about signing up as a regular soldier after completing his compulsory military service.

It was on a day in March when David was forced to realize that the military did not, however, share his enthusiasm. He was standing with other recent conscripts in the barrack yard of a logistics battalion in Bavaria. The three dozen young men, most of them 18 years old, were a reasonably motivated group. But the trainers looked discouraged when they saw David and his fellow recruits standing in the yard. "There are so many of them again," one of the superior officers said under his breath. What on earth were they going to do with the young men?

The question of what should be done with them is currently the subject of heated debate in Berlin. If Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has his way, the draft will soon be eliminated. Though a vocal supporter of compulsory military service until recently, Guttenberg, who belongs to the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has changed his position. Now Guttenberg, who holds the rank of corporal in the reserves, told SPIEGEL in an interview that "in practice (military service) will be gone in 10 years."

With this statement, Guttenberg antagonized members of his own party, especially Volker Kauder, the floor leader of the conservatives' parliamentary group. Kauder says that compulsory military service is a core concern of his party, the CDU, and that it is an "instrument for linking society with the Bundeswehr." CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who characterizes his party as "a party of the Bundeswehr," says: "We say yes to compulsory military service." Chancellor Angela Merkel, who considers compulsory military service a "success story," reined in the defense minister, because she believes that a large proportion of her voters support military service.

Outdated

These are the old, familiar rituals once again. Compulsory military service has always been one of the great taboos of German politics. Until the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of men were still needed in case a massive army had to be quickly mobilized to face off against the forces of the Warsaw Pact. But with the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the Cold War, conscription has become outdated.

For Germany, a country surrounded by friendly neighbors, national defense is hardly a concern anymore. Bundeswehr soldiers are now fighting in Afghanistan or overseeing a weapons embargo off the coast of Lebanon as part of the United Nations' UNIFIL force. The army's young conscripts are of no use to anyone. Poorly trained and neglected by the government, they spend much of their military service killing time.

But now there is some hope that things could change, because the government has to tighten its belt. Without the funds to support it, the draft will probably soon cease to exist. Officials at the Defense Ministry have calculated that the Bundeswehr would cost the government almost €500 million ($610 million) less per year if military service were abolished.

Currently, compulsory military service lasts nine months, which consists of three months of basic training and six months spent at a barracks somewhere in Germany. Six months at a barracks doesn't necessarily seem like a long time, but it can feel a lot longer for people who don't know what they are supposed to do with themselves. In fact, no one knows what they are supposed to do. David, the enthusiastic young conscript, didn't know, his fellow members of the logistics battalion don't know and hardly any of the roughly 60,000 German conscripts knows. Not even the Bundeswehr itself knows.

Dawdling Away the Days

This is why many conscripts, after completing basic training, learn how to spend time when there is nothing to do. They learn how to dawdle away hours, days, weeks and months, how to waste time running errands and sitting in office chairs, and they learn how to daydream in their units and offices, in hallways, rooms and barrack yards. Essentially, they learn how to loaf around. In the process, they become lazy, silly or creative, or sometimes all three. They do things like hold sleeping bag races, which they record with their mobile phone cameras. The Internet is full of such videos.

Seen in a positive light, compulsory military service is a gigantic, nine-month-long party for a bunch of young men (women are exempt from conscription in Germany). But what's the point of it all? What was the purpose of the government calling up 63,413 men for military service last year? Why does the state intervene in the lives of so many young people, even though it cannot explain to them what exactly they are supposed to do once they've arrived at their barracks?

Many conscripts believe that the government knows very well why it is drafting them and depriving them of their freedom for nine months. But the truth is more banal than that: It doesn't know. If it did, it would treat the young men differently. Five decades after it was introduced, the German draft has turned into a huge machine that is fed with young men and produces government-organized mass unemployment in the barracks.

The soldiers have come up with a word for the kind of activity that serves the sole purpose of making it seem as if they were busy. They call it Dummfick (loosely translatable as "stupid fucking around").

Cleaning Clean Guns

Shortly after reporting for duty to his logistics battalion, David was ordered to clean some guns. There was only one problem: The guns were already clean. In fact, they had never been used. Some would say it was meant to be practice, but David had already learned how to clean guns in basic training. Nevertheless, he sat down on a chair in front of the weapons room, a clean MG 3 machine gun in front of him, and took apart, polished and reassembled it. Taking things apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together, hour after hour, day after day -- that's how conscripts spend their time.

To make matters worse, says David, the barracks were completely full, with four bunk beds in each room. Some of his fellow soldiers had to store their equipment in the attic because there wasn't any space for additional cupboards in the room.

After graduating from high school, David, who comes from a small town in the western state of Hesse, was tempted by the prospect of getting a university education at the Bundeswehr and pursuing a career as an officer in the air force. His euphoria didn't last long. After two weeks, he was transferred from the weapons room to the company's business office, where there was just as little to do.

At least he didn't suffer the fate of a recruit in a transport battalion in western Germany, who was assigned to guard a telephone and answer official calls coming in to the phone. It was a monotonous task, because the phone never rang -- for weeks on end. It wasn't until a supervisor had the office furniture moved around that the soldier noticed the outlet behind a cupboard. As it turned out, the phone wasn't even plugged in.

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Graphic: Conscription in the Bundeswehr Zoom
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Graphic: Conscription in the Bundeswehr


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